BBC reporter faces threat of Thai jail

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The Independent Online

A group that campaigns for journalists' rights called on Thai police today to drop complaints against a BBC journalist accused of slandering the country's king.

BBC correspondent Jonathan Head has been accused of insulting the monarchy, or lese-majeste, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Three complaints were lodged by police Lt. Col. Wattanasak Mungkandee, who said he was acting in a personal capacity.

Authorities have yet to decide whether to formally charge Head.

"It is time for prosecutors and investigators in Thailand to immediately drop these outrageous and punitive charges against our colleague Jonathan Head," said Bob Dietz of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "Head's reporting has raised important questions about Thailand's deteriorating political situation and he should be allowed to report without fear of official reprisals."

One complaint is related to a 3 December article in which Head speculated about the relationship between the palace and the anti-government protest group that took over Bangkok's main international and domestic airports for eight days.

In the earlier complaint in May, Wattanasak submitted as evidence 11 articles from the BBC Web site, even though some were not written by Head. He also submitted a photograph of Head shaking hands with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra before an interview in late 2001.

Thaksin, accused of corruption and abuse of power, was ousted by a September 2006 military coup. His critics also accused him of trying to usurp royal power and being disrespectful to the king.

The BBC, one of the world's major newsgathering organizations, has in the past described the allegations as "completely unfounded."

When reached by phone Thursday, Head said the BBC had no further comment.

The majority of Thais greatly revere 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. However, insulting the monarchy, a crime known as lese-majeste, is sometimes used for political purposes to smear its targets.

Wattanasak said he was acting on behalf of Thais who have come to him complaining about Head's coverage.

"As a Thai, I made a decision that I had to do something to let foreign reporters know that Thais are not happy with those who write something bad about our royal family," Wattanasak told The Associated Press.